So far as most audiences are concerned, the scariest thing about any film playing in the New York Film Festival is its running time. An exceedingly prestigious and aggressively curated festival, NYFF is known for being so highbrow that it’s practically forehead -- the screening venues are all concentrated in Lincoln Center, and the lineup is traditionally programmed to reflect the refined tastes of such an illustrious institution. Now celebrating its 50th year, NYFF has become a reliable champion of auteur-driven cinema, unafraid to confront its mixed audience of cinephiles and high-society patrons with especially challenging fare -- the festival awards no prizes, in part because simply being invited is a stamp of uncompromising vision.
Over recent years, NYFF’s reputation as a cloistered venue for stuffy, self-satisfied Cannes holdovers has been underlined by the fact that it’s scheduled against Austin’s Fantastic Fest, that unrepentant orgy of genre cinema and death-defying milkshakes. By comparison, at NYFF, there’s free espresso, and maybe -- if you play your cards right -- the opportunity to pee next to Wes Anderson (for the record, he was wearing a fuzzy green blazer, and I somehow resisted the urge to pet it. Because I’m a champion). But programming overlap between those festivals this year suggests that the two worlds ultimately aren’t quite as far removed as they might appear. Holy Motors, Leos Carax’s dazzlingly dreamlike eulogy to the cinema and modes of seeing, slayed both crowds. And that was just the most delirious part of the iceberg.
NYFF has never been as oppressively austere as some make it out to be, partially because such claims tend to ignore the underlying humanism behind the most formatively progressive films of world cinema, and partially because recent editions of the fest have made efforts to expand the breadth of the lineup. Adding to a tradition of vital (and woefully underappreciated) sidebars, NYFF now offers a tiny slice of Midnight Madness, snatching up genre films that speak to the particular sensitivities of the festival’s flavor. Berberian Sound Studio was one of the films to play under that banner, this year. A horror movie set within the world of Italy’s giallo cinema, Berberian seems to have been even more positively received at NYFF than it was in Texas. Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 is another example of a film that appealed to both audiences -- a documentary that relays five outlandish interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Ascher’s dementedly obsessive study appeals to both hard-core horror junkies and folks who got sold out of NYFF’s various panels and talks.
On the other hand, NYFF perennially offers the fun of identifying the wicked horror elements couched in films that are exclusively claimed by the arthouse set. This year’s fest was a wild one in that regard, as the only movie that was (almost) as terrifying as the one starring Zac Efron was the 150-minute epic about two Romanian nuns trying to solve their impossible love. Also, the dude who made Diner showed up with a playful but righteously pissed found-footage movie about an invasion of killer isopods, not a single one of which was played by Steve Guttenberg. Because if scary movies have taught us anything, it’s that horrifying things love to jump out from unexpected places.
Beyond the Hills (dir. Cristian Mungiu)
Beyond the Hills may be the greatest exorcism film ever made (in the interest of full transparency, it must be said that the author of this piece has yet to see The Last Exorcism). Cristian Mungiu’s long-awaited follow-up to his sensational 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (or 4M3W2D, as it’s known in the biz), Beyond the Hills is a gruelingly epic and emotionally merciless drama, typical of the films for which the Romanian New Wave has become such a vital force in recent world cinema.
Mungiu’s latest story of women in peril opens with a girl named Alina desperately flinging herself into the arms of her childhood friend Voichita. Alina needs a place to stay, but most of all she needs Voichita, with whom she developed a romantic love (and a physical intimacy) during the adolescent years they spent together at a local orphanage. But Voichita has changed. She’s not really all about the sex these days. Or the love. Or the electricity. No, she’s given all of that up in exchange for a pious lifetime of physical labor as a nun at a remote and severely acetic hillside monastery (YOLO). It’s a frigid place, populated by about a dozen other women and dominated by a giant priest who looks like Rasputin, because he is probably Rasputin (not literally, but you just know that guy is still causing trouble somewhere).
Voichita invites Alina to stay with her at the monastery for a spell (in separate beds), which stirs the pot a bit because the residents don’t take kindly to housing civilians or those outside their faith. The tense situation begins to boil over once it becomes clear that Alina is unable to abide by the monastery’s precepts, and likewise unwilling to leave her beloved friend behind.
The process by which that premise evolves to the point where there’s an attempted exorcism is rather simple, but -- working in the classic vein of stories about a sane person trapped in a world gone mad -- Mungiu’s bleakly comic film flays Romanian bureaucracy while illustrating the deadly perils of dominion and communal fear. Breathless long takes and intractably committed performances encourage the viewer to suspect the worst from every moment, but the grim reality of this story’s inertia operates on frequencies of despair for which most of us are insufficiently nihilistic enough to prepare. Supremely terrifying in its refusal to blink or concede to common sense, Beyond the Hills is cinema at its angriest -- by the time the last shot throws mud in your eye, it feels like you’ll never be clean, again.
The Bay (dir. Barry Levinson)
On one hand, Barry Levinson -- the director of rich and reassuring Hollywood dramas like Rain Man and The Natural -- isn’t exactly known for making scary movies. On the other hand, it’s impossible to deny that the guy responsible for Envy isn’t one of the supreme masters of modern horror. All the same, The Bay may be the second-most frightening movie that Levinson has ever made, a furious slice of eco-horror that doesn’t even need to rely on plot songs to instill its terror. It’s rare to see such an accomplished filmmaker try his hand at found footage, but Levinson has a good deal of fun with the form, blending footage from a whole bunch of media to present a kaleidoscopic and amusingly hokey portrait of a Maryland town overrun by man-eating isopods.
Okay, real talk: Isopods are like the Exxon-Mobil of nightmare fuel. Individual photos of these parasitic creatures are more horrifying than all of the Paranormal Activity films combined. On the layman’s level that most vividly appeals to the imagination, isopods are small fresh-water crustaceans, a certain order of which enjoy burrowing inside a fish, replacing its tongue, and making a comfy home for itself where the animal’s tongue used to be. In the almighty words of Wikipedia, this is “The only known instance of a parasite functionally replacing a host structure.” Given how terrifying these things are to even look at, the challenge in making a horror film about isopods is to make them even more palpably scary on-screen than they are in real life.
In that regard, Levinson’s film is inevitably a failure. The CG isopods are gnarly little dudes who make some rather wretched sounds, but they’re never a fraction as unpleasant as the symptoms they inspire from the bodies of their victims (Levinson sure does love himself some fleshy boils). And yet, Levinson’s fictions are limited by his fury -- the film’s most resonant scares are purely ecological in nature (it’s repeatedly suggested that the isopod invasion is the result of corporate indifference towards proper waste disposal). Levinson is obviously having some fun, here, but his ultimate intention is to illustrate the extent to which disregard for the environment (especially on a corporate level) is as dangerous for us as it is for any of the maritime species so wantonly destroyed by our greed. The Bay can’t cut loose and really go for the jugular because Levinson is rightly afraid that fulfilling the promise of the film’s campy premise (or even its poster) might distract from the reality of its ecological concerns. As a result, The Bay makes for brackish water, a fun and socially conscious B movie that’s ultimately torn between its two types of terror.
The Paperboy (dir. Lee Daniels)
So far as trash cinema goes, Lee Daniels’ latest is a stinking landfill on fire. A swampy gumbo of inane nonsense that goes nowhere and means nothing, The Paperboy ostensibly tells the story of a murderer in late-'60s Florida (John Cusack, reviving his Being John Malkovich look), the woman who itches for him (Nicole Kidman), the well-toned kid who lusts for her (Zac Efron), his journalist brother (Matthew McConaughey), his partner (David Oyelowo), and also Macy Gray, who apparently survived the Green Goblin’s flying-thingy attack.
Adapted from Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel of the same name and pulverized into a lurid story that’s far too dull to meaningfully subvert the tropes of a difficult and exceedingly prejudiced time, the very idea that The Paperboy got funded is scarier than most horror films in their entireties, as is the idea that something so incompetently assembled was allowed to compete at Cannes. The idea that this movie got produced while so many projects with brilliant potential will never see the light of day haunts me like no other film this year. The Paperboy is the most terrifying film I’ve seen since the festival began, and that includes Hulk Hogan’s sex tape.